Fern Hames was a participant in the inaugural Homeward Bound voyage in 2016. She joined the faculty as onboard visibility sci-comms facilitator for Homeward Bound 3, in 2018. Fern has extensive experience in freshwater fish research, stakeholder and community engagement, policy development and environmental education, and is now leading a team to build nature connectedness and meaningful actions for nature in the Victorian community. Fern was awarded a Public Service Medal for outstanding contribution to nature conservation, in the 2021 Australia Day Honours.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about trauma: the layers of trauma and pain for first nations people, the layers of trauma our natural environment has suffered and is about to suffer, the trauma from the climate crisis, the multiple traumas from our wildfires, and from COVID-19. And I’ve been thinking about trauma leadership.
I first thought about Trauma Leadership in 2009. It wasn’t new to an established field of trauma psychologists, but it was new to me; as a fish ecologist. In February 2009, major wildfires devastated Victoria, Australia, where I live. Shockingly, 173 people died. Most of the tiny township of Marysville was destroyed. As well as concern for the human community, as fish scientists, we were concerned about a population of tiny, native, threatened freshwater fish above the township of Marysville and the rainforest gullies which head up the mountains above the town. We wanted to support these little fish with some immediate recovery actions, and we were acutely mindful of the suffering and trauma in Marysville. We became aware of the advice of Rob Gordon, a trauma psychologist well experienced in the needs of people in pain like this. He advised us to think carefully about how we interacted with those communities, and to generate a sense of calm, safety, hope, connectedness, control, and of things ‘getting back together’.
We did this, layering it through all the actions we took and all the conversations we had. We worked to help reconnect people back to each other and to their local nature and shared stories of hope. It was evident that integrating these elements, and deliberately connecting people with ‘recovering nature’, helped individuals and communities recover. I began to think of this as ‘Trauma Leadership’, and Nature-led community recovery.
And then, just over a decade later, in Australia’s 2019/20 Black Summer (which some call our Savage Summer) we found ourselves in a similar position. Massive fires raged over Victoria again. But not just Victoria this time; it seemed like the whole of Australia was on fire; there were fires in every state, and they raged for months; from September 2019 to March 2020. This was truly unprecedented: in scale, duration, and in impacts on multiple communities and on threatened species and our natural environment.
Here was another time for applying Trauma Leadership. I watched the moments when such leadership shone, and when it was sorely lacking. We tried to apply it at multiple scales in our own contexts; as individuals, to those directly around us; in our families, and in work teams. We thought carefully about how to apply this to our Institute of 100 scientists, deep in eco-grief. And we worked to layer it through our interactions with fire-affected communities. The most valued communication was clear, calm, helped people understand what would happen next and why, and provided pathways for action.
Another layer of trauma
And then, barely before the fires were even cool, we were in wider trauma. The COVID-19 pandemic threw us all into a collective trauma. And we are still there. This is a trauma in which we do not feel safe, or calm, and in which we find ourselves deep in a fog of uncertainty. In the beginning, I remember thinking: How many will die? Will my family and friends get sick; die? Will I? How long will we be in lockdown? What is the next stage of lockdown? When will it come? Will I lose my job? Will I lose my house? Will my community grow in connectedness and support for each other; will we see a resurgence of genuine humanity – or the opposite?
So much unknowingness. So much fear. So much grief for the year we’ve lost; this was not what any of us hoped or planned for, in 2020. Added to this, is the background trauma of climate grief. I see my friends and colleagues overwhelmed and in despair at the scale of the climate crisis and inadequate action. They watch species decline, systems collapse, and struggle again and again to hang on to some stubborn optimism. So, if ever there was a time for Trauma Leadership it is now.
DIY trauma leadership
It is also a time to remind ourselves that leadership is everywhere; not just in those positions labeled as such. All of us can apply the principles of trauma leadership every day. We can apply it to ourselves, our families and workplaces, and the way we show up in the world. We can apply it in the way we manage our own emotions; the way we respond to the tsunami of news and the constant change. How we respond to those things has an impact on others and will influence others. We can apply it in how we show up at work and how we manage change.
In all of these tiers; for ‘me’, ‘we’ and the ‘world’, we can think about the principles of trauma leadership. How can I generate a sense of calm, of safety, of hope? How can I effectively and meaningfully keep connected with others, with nature, and the world? Many of these principles can be supported by demonstrating them ourselves.
A sense of control can also be achieved through regular, clear information and communication; helping us understand what to expect, when, and what it means. What will give me and others a sense of control over what happens next? How can effective leadership help us prepare for the next steps, how we imagine the future and how we create that future?
Nature supports resilience
For me, maintaining a calm and considered response to this new world requires a regular refilling of my resilience ‘well’. That means regularly connecting with nature, in meaningful ways, and actively noticing nature. A couple of days ago, I reminded myself of that. It was a long, hot day working from my kitchen table. The day started early with too much doom-scrolling, which spilled into a series of back to back online meetings, and editing reports to meet tight deadlines.
By 6 pm I needed a break. So I grabbed my hat, pulled on my boots, and headed up to my local flora reserve. It was hot, and the air was still; the red box leaves hung suspended in the heat. The russet kangaroo grass lay listlessly beside the narrow path. Most of the grasses were thickly golden, but this is no static painting, like Arthur Streeton’s ‘Golden Summer’. The scene was alive; the air was full of the chirruping of insects, the “waaaaa” of ravens, the chatter of clusters of companionable choughs. The air was heavy with the hot, heady scent of eucalyptus. Butterflies danced everywhere. Grey fantails danced, skinks scattered off the path and I stamped the ground ahead of me, with a big stick, in an attempt to let the snakes know I am coming. The spiders’ looped, silver, silky hammocks were slung between the stringybark trees, backlit by the sun. The sky was still intensely, densely blue.
I stopped at the rough bench seat at the top of the hill, listened to the hum of insects and ravens, felt the slightest cool breeze lifting across the sweat on my neck and back. I shifted my boot to avoid a line of ants. Heading home, an Eastern Grey Kangaroo bounded lazily away to my left, maggies slowly stepped along the path ahead, calling their liquid gurgle, and old, oval red box leaves glowed crimson; backlit.
A new relationship with nature
When I got back, I was calmer, clearer. I’d headed out my door with a noisy, busy mind; anxious about my colleagues, my deadlines, the worlds’ crises; our various griefs. My walk in nature hadn’t served up any answers, but it helped the spaghetti jumble of thoughts in the back of my mind find an order, and priority, and link to values. I’m clearer on the next priorities for me, our team, our efforts for nature. My stubborn optimism is back.
I know that nature is good for us at any time; nature brings us joy, connectedness, calmness, awe, and wonder. But right now; at this time in history, I know we need it even more. Nature nourishes us through our trauma and builds our recovery. It reminds us of what is important.
Nature deserves a better deal; it’s time for us to renew our relationship with nature. Right now. Let’s build and strengthen our relationships with nature to better reflect respect and reciprocity. A people-place relationship based on reciprocity reminds me a lot of the concept of Country, and we have much to learn from the leadership of Traditional Owners and First Peoples everywhere. Let’s listen better.
What happens next is profoundly important. We can use this historic COVID-moment; this moment in which our habits are disrupted, to shift our behaviours, shift our attitudes, shift our habits in ways that genuinely support our communities and our planet. We don’t have time to pause. The conversations we have, the decisions we make, the actions we take, will all make a difference; now and into our new future.